I. Distinctions – From our perspective as humans, we tend to distinguish sharply between justice and mercy.
For us, justice is the rendering to each person what is due to him or her. There is a kind of “You did it, you get it” mentality (whether praise or rebuke, reward or punishment). For us, justice is about exactness; it about what is required or due.
In contrast, mercy to us is the giving beyond what is strictly required or the withholding of due punishment. Mercy is about tempering the stricter requirements of justice.
Not only do we tend to distinguish between justice and mercy, but we also often set them in opposition to each other. Thus mercy challenges justice and asks it to lessen its demands.
In God, however, justice and mercy are alike; they are as one, simply. God has no “parts” as we do; He is utter simplicity. He is I AM.
As an illustration, think about how, even in created things, aspects that we distinguish from one another exist simply so as to be one. Consider a candle flame. We can discern many different aspects of the candle flame: its heat, its light, its color, and so forth. And while these distinctions can help us, in reality they cannot be so simply separated. I cannot wield a knife and separate these qualities so that I put the heat over here, the light over there, and the color in yet another place. In my mind I can distinguish between these different aspects, but in reality they are so together as to be one.
In God we can distinguish many traits, but in Him they are so together as to be one. Justice and mercy are like this. They are not “opposite” modes in which God acts as if He were subject to mood swings. In God, justice and mercy are not isolated or opposed; they are united as if to be one. This is true with all of God’s aspects. What we isolate, divide, and distinguish, are in God more simply united. They are one in Him, who is being itself, who describes himself simply as I AM.
Therefore, when we discuss the relationship between justice and mercy in the Church and in God, we must avoid distinctions that merely see them in opposition. We must seek to see them as rooted in God, simply, and in a way that harmonizes them.
As always, St. Thomas Aquinas is of great help in both distinguishing between and uniting justice and mercy. He reminds us that our understanding of God’s justice must always include that fact that it presupposes His mercy and is founded upon it! To those who would set justice and mercy in opposition St. Thomas says,
It is said (Psalm 24:10), “All the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth.” … Thus justice must exist in all God’s works. [But] the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded thereupon …. We may say, for instance, that to possess hands is due to man on account of his rational soul; and his rational soul is due to him that he may be man; [but] his being man is on account of the divine goodness. So, in every work of God, viewed at its primary source, there appears mercy. In all that follows, the power of mercy remains, and works indeed with even greater force; as the influence of the first cause is more intense than that of second causes … (Summa Theologica Pars Prima, q. 21 art 4).
In other words, whatever may seem due to us by God (given that He has created us and that we require certain things in order to be what we are), we ultimately confront the truth that we are not necessary beings; we are contingent beings. Our entire existence is therefore an act of pure mercy and love by God. Yes, whatever might seem due to us on account of God’s justice is ultimately founded upon an act of His grace and mercy: our very existence.
For God, therefore, justice and mercy cannot so easily be set in opposition to each other. On account of His mercy in creating us, his justice is built and it flows. Though justice and mercy are distinct in our minds, In God they exist more simply. Some of this is brought out in the Book of Psalms, where the rhyme is in the thought rather than the sound. Similar thoughts are paired together and rhyme. Consider just three examples:
- The LORD loves righteousness and justice. His mercy fills the earth (Ps 35:5).
- Righteousness and justice are the habitation of your throne:
mercy and truth shall go before your face (Ps 89:14).
- Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my pleas for mercy! Because of your faithfulness and justice, answer me (Ps 143:1).
Notice that in God, justice and righteous rhyme with mercy and faithfulness. That is to say, they are more alike than different.
II. Definition – How, then, can we define God’s justice?
God’s justice is His fidelity to His merciful promises. This definition unites God’s justice and mercy and shows how His justice rests on His mercy and presupposes it.
As an illustration, consider one of the most fundamental promises of God in the Old Testament and see how it makes for the foundation of God’s justice and the whole of the moral law:
[O My people], I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my statutes (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
This merciful promise of God to us should revolutionize our understanding of His law and the justice it declares. It moves law from a merely prescriptive set of requirements to a more descriptive assertion of what God will accomplish for the believer as a work of His mercy. God’s law is a description of the transformed human person. It is what become like when God mercifully cleanses us of our idols and then takes our stony hearts and gives us true, transformed hearts.
This is a very different understanding of God’s law than conceiving of it merely as a list of requirements (that we’d better do, or else). No, God’s justice is His fidelity to His merciful promises to save us from our sins, to transform us, to configure us to what is right and just, and to restore us to a right relationship with Him and one another. It is a work of God’s mercy to conform us to His justice!
III. Delineations and Difficulties – We see that God’s law is not a threatening or oppressive expression of raw justice in the detached, worldly sense. Rather, it is an expression of His merciful promise to restore us and transform us.
The law does provide metrics. The transformed human person is one thing rather than another: he is generous rather than greedy, chaste rather than impure, he loves God and neighbor, he has authority over his anger, and so forth. The law paints a picture; it is a description before it is a prescription.
True charity and mercy do not abridge or dilute the law. Mercy points to the law, it is its origin and manifestation. To dilute the law or to think that mercy merely sets it aside is a foundational error and is in fact most unmerciful.
But what about difficulties and seemingly paradoxical realities such as punishment, warnings about Hell, and suffering?
Punishment – Scripture is clear that God’s punishment is rooted in His mercy and love:
My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:5-11).
Punishment is, therefore, an aspect of mercy. The purpose of punishment is to help us to experience the lesser consequences of our sin so that we do not experience the fuller, more dire consequences. Punishment also imparts a greater a greater understanding of God’s justice and vision for us, as opposed to the false promises offered to us by this world.
For many of us today, it is difficult to see punishment as an aspect of mercy, because we tend to equate love and mercy with mere kindness or approval. It is an immature notion of love that says, “If you love me you will always be nice and kind, and you’ll let me do and be whatever I please.” God loves us too much to yield to that notion of love and mercy.
Hell – I have written much on this topic before. Briefly, Hell exists as a manifestation of God’s respect for our freedom. By a sheer act of His mercy, God created each of us and summoned us to love. But love requires a fundamental freedom that is not haphazardly abridged (or set aside altogether) by God when we make choices that reject His plan for us. Scripture indicates that many people mysteriously reject God, and they do so in ways that tend to become ever more firm over the years if they do not yield to the grace of repentance that God consistently offers. Heaven is not a designer paradise. It is the full manifestation of the truths and values of God’s Kingdom. It includes the deep love and ongoing worship of God. It fully manifests things like love of one’s neighbor (and even one’s enemy), esteem for the poor, chastity, forgiveness, and generosity. There are some people who do not esteem or want things like this; God will not force them to esteem or accept such virtues or the fruits that come from them. Hell is a place apart that some mysteriously prefer in an ever-deepening way. There comes a moment when our decision becomes final and forever fixed. Judgment and the “Depart from me!” that God utters is rooted in His respect for our freedom. This freedom is a glory He mercifully gave us and which He mercifully respects, even if it means accepting that we reject Him and the Kingdom He offers. To force Heaven on those who do not want what it clearly is, would neither be just nor merciful.
Suffering – God offered Adam and Eve the paradise of the Garden of Eden. But despite being warned of the suffering and death it would bring, they still freely chose to know and experience evil for themselves rather than trust God’s teaching. As a result of this, we now live in paradise lost. All of us have ratified their choice by our own sins. In His just respect for human freedom, God did not overrule Adam and Eve’s free choice. Instead, he mercifully works with and through the very suffering and death they/we chose as a way back. It is the way of the cross, and justice and mercy meet at the cross. Mercy and faithfulness have met; justice and peace have embraced (Psalm 85:11). In the suffering heart of Christ on the cross, we see the truest and most vivid way that justice and mercy are alike in God. While there are many mysteries related to suffering, God permits it for some greater good. In allowing suffering, God respects our freedom. Most of us know that suffering promotes growth in us, prunes our heart of often-disordered desires, and bestows on us greater wisdom than do the mere frivolities of this life.
IV. Duties – Having set forth some insights into the relationship between mercy and justice in God’s Law, I cannot in a brief reflection propose a complete legal philosophy for civil lawyers. As human beings we cannot comprehend all things or embrace them “simply,” as God does. God’s Law as revealed is perfect and eternal; our laws are imperfect and passing, as circumstances sometimes require.
And yet what is best in our human legal system does reflect God’s law, which we access by both reason and revelation. In order that our imperfect legal system may better reflect God’s perfect law, let me propose to you that as Catholic and Christian lawyers you do well to ponder (especially in this Year of Mercy) how to make it better reflect that mercy and justice are not opposed to each other, but go hand in hand.
Thus, one error to avoid is that of legalism, which idolizes the letter of the law and forgets that even its human authors conceived of it for the common good. The law is a mercy before it is a mandate. It is meant to be for man, not against him; It is meant to promote our welfare not imperil it. As such, the law must have some leeway that accounts for special circumstances and unforeseen situations. Law speaks to the general, but not to every specific. “Zero tolerance” policies should be rare; they often result in foolish, excessive outcomes.
And yet the opposite error is also to be avoided: dismissing the role of law in setting norms and ensuring an equitable playing field. Too often today, sentimentalism seeks to supplant the role of law in ensuring justice. Paradoxically, ensuring justice is actually a very merciful thing to do. It makes the world more certain and stable; it enables people to maneuver more freely and to have recourse when problems arise. The truest freedom is a limited and circumscribed one. Too much freedom is anarchy, which promotes the bondage of chaos, power struggles, and the tyranny of relativism. In its best moments of securing justice and equity, the law supplies precious mercies such as stability, recourse and redress, commonality, and protection.
If God’s Justice is His fidelity to His merciful promises, then a Catholic and Christian lawyer ought to consider if and how our legal system enshrines the merciful promises that our Constitution seeks to promote: justice, equity, equality, the common good, individual dignity, and the individual rights of every person (including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness).
If God’s law paints a picture of the transformed human person, then our laws should also paint a picture of the virtuous citizen, who properly provides for himself and his family and who also participates in and respects the common good.
If God’s law provides for punishment with a remedial purpose in mind (and this is mercy), then a Catholic and Christian lawyer ought to consider if our penal system does this to the appropriate degree. Incarceration and other punishments may be necessary to protect the wider citizenry (and this, too, is a mercy), but how do we assist the criminal in becoming a better and more productive citizen (thus showing mercy to him as well)?
Justice and mercy therefore are not opposed to each other; they come from the same font, which is love. Love rejoices in the truth, which the law seeks to enshrine. It is the truth that sets us free, and this is a very great mercy! Even in civil law, justice and mercy walk together and seek the same goal: liberation in the truth.
With God, justice and mercy are alike. Why not with us, too?